What's Behind the Culture of Academic Dishonesty

B. Gilliard

You've heard the stories: Cheating in Atlanta, Georgia. Cheating in Washington, DC. Cheating in Long Island, New York.

Academic dishonesty, plagiarism, and cheating are hardly new. And as the history of the banking industry and baseball demonstrate, cheating scandals aren't just limited to schools. With numerous incidents making headlines in recent months, however, questions are being raised about the validity and the pressures of standardized testing, as well as the security of testing practices. And some are asking if it's time to scrutinize the underlying behaviors and motivation for all this cheating.

Is the pressure to score high -- not just on standardized tests, but in all facets of school life -- leading to a rampant culture of academic dishonesty? Or is it simply that technology is making it easier to cheat?

Some studies indicate that cheating is at an all time high -- or at least, students' willingness to admit they've cheated. Some 75% of college students admit that they've cheated at one point or another during their academic careers. That's up from 20% of students back in the 1940s.

According to these studies, the types of students who are cheating has changed, too. It isn't necessarily the student who's struggling to do well in class who's cheating; it's top-performing students who are feeling the pressure to perform better. A recent article in Psychology Today cites one student saying, "I was in honors classes in high school because I wanted to get into the best schools, and all of us in those classes cheated; we needed the grades to get into the best schools."

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The pressures to test well are extending beyond students now too, as the cheating scandals in Atlanta and DC and elsewhere suggest. Students are cheating. Teachers are cheating. School administrators are cheating.

That Psychology Today article, written by Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, posits that there may be something about the structure of the school system that is becoming a "breeding ground for cheaters." He argues that by being forced to spend time doing work they do not choose, students are unmotivated to learn. Furthermore, in a climate where they're told what really matters are grades, students turn to cheating (rather than to learning) in order to do well.

"One of the tragedies of our system of schooling," he writes, "is that it deflects students from discovering what they truly love and find worth doing for its own sake. Instead, it teaches them that life is a series of hoops that one must get through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others' judgments rather than in real, self-satisfying accomplishments."

Despite all the new ways that students can learn now -- via Web tools and mobile phone apps, for example -- it seems as though without a shift in this culture, cheating will continue. Indeed, I stumbled upon a Web site yesterday with instructions on how to cheat the point system on Khan Academy. Rather than earn badges by watching (and hopefully learning from) the videos, the author of the post demonstrated how to artificially inflate one's points. Khan himself said he's heard from teachers that students try to "game" the system, and his engineers are working on finding ways to thwart those efforts.

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Many people point to Khan Academy as a site that epitomizes a system that encourages self-paced, self-motivated learners to thrive. What does it say, then, that there are already cheating sites aimed at gaming that system?

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